Whilst Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing was the first novel which the author penned, it was discovered posthumously, and was first published in 2005. The executors of his will were in two minds about whether it should be made readily available to the public, and I for one am so glad that it was. I feel privileged to be able to read Capote’s work in all of its forms, but there is something about Summer Crossing almost being hidden from public eyes which makes me all the more thankful to have been able to engross myself into the story.
Summer Crossing is set in post-World War II New York. The focus is upon a seventeen-year-old girl, ‘a young carefree socialite’ named Grady McNeil. Her parents go off to England – thus taking the ‘summer crossing’ of the novel’s title – and leave her alone in their Fifth Avenue penthouse for the summer. The blurb succinctly described how this impacts upon Grady’s life: ‘Left to her own devices, Grady turns up the heat on the secret affair she’s been having with a Brooklyn-born Jewish war veteran who works as a parking lot attendant. As the season passes, the romance turns more serious and morally ambiguous, and Grady must eventually make a series of decisions that will forever affect her life and the lives of everyone around her’.
Even before I began to read, I was expecting to find a heroine like Breakfast at Tiffany‘s quirky Holly Golightly. There are similarities between Grady and Holly, of course, but Grady is also something wholly original – she is a distinct character in her own right, who has been built to perfection and comes to life before the very eyes. She is a vivid creation, and one who dances around in the mind for weeks after the final page of her tale is closed. Capote launches into her family dynamic immediately, and so much is learnt about the characters in just the first few pages in consequence. The friction which exists between Grady’s parents, and her elder sister Apple, has been perfectly portrayed – so much so that we are aware of it straight away. The social and gender inequalities which he points out as the plot gathers speed help to ground Grady’s story in place and time. Capote’s understanding of the human psyche comes across as intelligently as is possible on the page.
I adore the premise of Summer Crossing, and would have been thrilled to come across it if it had been by another author. The mere fact that it was penned by Truman Capote, however, put it on something of a pedestal to me, and I was so excited to see how such an intriguing storyline would work when coupled with his beautiful and distinctive writing in its earliest stages. The Modern Library edition’s blurb calls it a ‘precocious, confident first novel’; to an extent it is, but upon reading it, it feels like so much more. Whilst it is slim – the edition which I read ran to only 126 pages – it touches upon so many themes, and its plot is constructed of a weight of layers, each of which comes together beautifully upon its conclusion.
As I invariably am, I was struck by Capote’s writing throughout Summer Crossing; his descriptions particularly hold such beauty: ‘whose green estimating eyes were like scraps of sea’, ‘bones of fish-spine delicacy’, ‘dream-trapped faces’, ‘joyful dark’, and ‘evening effigies embalmed and floating in the caramel-sweet air’ are just a few examples. The way in which Capote uses words is masterful; he builds scenes in such a stunning manner, and ensures that everything he describes is as vivid as it can possibly be. For a debut novel, Summer Crossing feels incredibly polished, and wonderfully wrought. I was swept away into the story from the very first page. It is fascinating to see how Capote has developed as a writer from these beginnings, but this novel is just as strong, surprising and well-plotted as his later work.